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Learning Library Blog 7 Tips and 1 Activity To Help Digital Citizens Engage With Empathy
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7 Tips and 1 Activity To Help Digital Citizens Engage With Empathy

By Diana Fingal
October 18, 2021
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Educator and author Kristen Mattson, Ed.D., has a bone to pick with a lot of the digital citizenship curricula used in schools today. Too much of it, she says, focuses on what not to do, and it rarely addresses the opportunities and responsibilities of the digital world. In addition, much of it is isolated from any real context and doesn’t give students many opportunities to practice their skills as citizens of digital communities.

“Being a citizen of a community means interacting with each other, supporting one another and working together to make our corner of the world a better place,” she writes on her blog.

Mattson, author of Digital Citizenship in Action: Empowering Students to Engage in Online Communities, is not alone. She points to the venerable John Dewey, the early 20th-century education reformist, who argued for better citizenship education in schools back in 1909.

“He believed that the school’s definition of a citizen as an informed voter and follower of the law was too narrow and asserted that a good citizen was many things – a voter and a rule follower, but also a community member who must function as a worker, a leader, a parent or mentor who can use the sum of their experiences and skills to ‘contribute to the values of life [and] add to the decencies and graces of civilization wherever he is’,” Mattson writes.

Which is exactly what the Digital Citizen standard within the ISTE Standards for Students is all about. During a refresh of ISTE’s Student Standards in 2016, a new definition of digital citizenship emerged.

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Digital citizens, according to the ISTE Standards, are “PK-12 learners who proactively approach their digital access, participation, and associated rights, accountability and opportunities with empathy, ethics, and a sense of individual, social and civic responsibility.”

Instead of limiting digital citizenship lessons to “golden rule” type messages, there are many ways to guide students and give them practice in interacting thoughtfully in online discussions, Mattson says. She offers these tips for helping students — and adults! — engage in effective online communication:

1. Take the time to read and understand the original post.

Read and reflect on an entire article or post as well as the comments of others before joining the conversation.

2. Exchange ideas with one or more users.

Approach online conversations as an opportunity to learn new things; read, ask questions and hear others out as much as — or even more than — you speak.

3. Tag and mention community members.

Reference a particular person, line of thinking or portion of the original text. Stay on topic.

4. Carefully craft your message.

Consider the audience you are writing for. Comments with typos, incomplete thoughts or uncommon slang can make it hard for others to understand your message.

5. Present evidence and personal experiences that support your opinions.

This is a more respectful and effective way to engage with others who do not agree with your opinions than insults, name-calling, and attacking other users.

6. Uphold the digital community’s agreed-upon norms for interaction.

If you don’t know the norms, look to how others are behaving or ask for guidance.

7. Consume as much as you contribute.

Read with the intention of understanding and learning more, not to combat other people’s opinions.


Activity: Sentence frames help students with respectful online responses

To illustrate some of the practices mentioned above, educators can give students sentence frames to help them structure respectful responses in debate or disagreement situations.

Scenario: A digital citizen wants to present a new idea that is rooted in evidence but may seem controversial.

Sentence frame: According to _______, we should think about ______ in this way: _______.

Scenario: A digital citizen reads a viewpoint they agree with.

Sentence frame: Thank you, ________, for presenting your viewpoint. I agree because ___________.

 Scenario: A digital citizen wants to respectfully bring up an idea or viewpoint that is opposite that of the original poster.

Sentence frame: I appreciate the experience shared by _________, but in my experience __________.

Scenario: A digital citizen does not understand the view of someone else in the community and would like more information or an explanation.

I realize my views on ______ are limited. ______, would you mind expanding on your idea a bit more?

Scenario: A digital citizen wants to acknowledge their new learning as a result of their community interactions.

I used to think _____, but now I understand_________.

This activity is included in the ISTE U Course, Digital Citizenship in Action, which includes activities and ideas for teaching digital citizenship across content areas and grade levels.

Digital Citizenship - ISTE U edtech PD

Being inclusive — or being open to hearing and recognizing multiple viewpoints and engaging with others online with respect and empathy — is one of the five competencies of the #DigCitCommit movement. Watch the video below to find out how you can join the movement.


Diana Fingal is director of editorial content for ISTE. She believes technology has the power to revolutionize education and be the great equalizer for all learners. 

This is an updated version of a post that originally published on June 14, 2018.